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Those Dry Stone Walls Revisited – A Review by Nick Aitken

Bruce and Kristin Munday have followed the success of ‘those dry-stone walls: stories from South Australia’s stone age’ with an enlarged sequel, after finding more “… historic, photogenic, accessible …” dry stone structures, and unearthing the stories behind them.
Bruce considers “South Australia’s contribution to the world inventory of dry stone walls is relatively piddling … “. That may be so, but those walls are an important record of colonial expansion and changing land use.
The state of South Australia was founded in 1836 as a planned colony of free settlers, mostly from the British Isles. Immigrants and hired contractors raised stone walls to improve their individual tenancies, or as infrastructure for large sheep stations. It is no wonder that walls on the arid plains of South Australia look familiar to visitors from the northern hemisphere.
Indigenous peoples built the first dry stone walls in Australia. These were underwater fish traps. Bruce appreciates their culture and recognizes it was often trampled underfoot by graziers and farmers. Early settlers only saw a wasteland crying out for ‘improvement’. Development was fast, and lucrative. One sheep station was shearing 115,000 sheep in 1855. Fortunes were made, and lost, as settlers learned to cope with drought, fire and flood.
The Mundays have crafted a valuable addition to walling literature. Many books emphasise the history or technical facts, or the picturesque nature of walls. Bruce goes a lot further. He is a storyteller who, having been a farmer, also likes to listen – and question.
A dry stone wall is not just a pile of well-placed rock. It is evidence of a lifestyle, indications of a culture, and, often, the only surviving evidence for years of backbreaking, heartbreaking, toil. These walls were regarded as nothing remarkable in the 1800’s. Any contextual knowledge about them was preserved, almost accidentally, in sheep station records, tales from grandpa, old faded photographs and letters. In order to avoid future ignorance (in its general sense) information about these walls must be gathered, curated and publicized, before it disappears.
Bruce brings together these scattering pieces of evidence. Kristin’s excellent photographs back up the narrative. It’s the descriptions of the humanity associated with the walls that makes this book intriguing.
The Mundays cover a wide range of dry stone work, from farm walls, sheepyards and wash pools to the 65km (40 miles) long Camel’s Hump wall. It cost an estimated £3250 in the 1860s. Cottages and shearing sheds were also constructed of stone, using mud as mortar.
One especially interesting section tells us about “… a few wallers, old and recent, professional and amateur ….”. Some of these individuals built the original walls; others are modern wallers creating more ‘arty’ work. Another chapter on quarrying, and the personalities there, suggests the trade is doing well.
Old walls may have new purpose. Bruce points out the danger of bushfires. Stone walls have often stopped the spread of grass fires – a good reason for renovating the old and building new.
This new edition includes a good ‘how-to’ section, taking us through the construction process of freestanding and retaining walls, with a comprehensive guide to tools and safety. We then move on to the intricacies of building follies – a bridge, a small courtyard and a stone egg. All in all, there is enough here to inspire any novice to repair an old wall, or attempt a new one.
In summary, this entertaining book is informative, with superb colour photographs. It gives valuable information about South Australia’s dry stone heritage and how it has fared. It also sets an optimistic tone for the future.
Nick Aitken
June 24, 2024
An earlier version of this review was published in issue 60 of ‘Flag Stone’, the journal of the Dry Stone Walls Association of Australia Inc, May 2024.